Local vets outraged by ruling allowing lies about military accolades

Raymond Gauthier appears in court for a hearing where he was found guilty of of violating probation by Collier County Circuit Judge Fred Hardt at the Collier County Courthouse on Wednesday in Naples. Gauthier was on probation for pretending to be a highly decorated military veteran.

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Raymond Gauthier appears in court for a hearing where he was found guilty of of violating probation by Collier County Circuit Judge Fred Hardt at the Collier County Courthouse on Wednesday in Naples. Gauthier was on probation for pretending to be a highly decorated military veteran.

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Raymond Gauthier wearing some of his fraudulent military decorations.

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Raymond Gauthier wearing some of his fraudulent military decorations.

It may be abominable, but lying about military accolades and achievements is no longer illegal.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a crime to lie about receiving military honors and accolades, violates the First Amendment. Yet, a local man who lied about a Purple Heart among other honors will not be appealing his conviction nor will his record be eligible for expunction, his attorney said.

The Supreme Court ruling has spurred seething veterans to seek out a new law to protect their honors from abuse and band together voicing a shared frustration with the decision.

"If you didn't earn it, don't deserve it," said veteran John Riccio, 74, of Naples. "(They're) swindling people, lying to people to gain something. (I) can't say it's against the law, but I just don't see how you can get away with something like that. Makes me angry."

As incensed local veterans try to understand why someone would lie, the American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong is lobbying Congress for a new version of the Stolen Valor Act.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the federal law reeked of an Orwellian Truth Ministry, referring to George Orwell's 1984. Even though the government doesn't condone lying, it cannot control what its people say, and that includes claiming to be a war hero.

"Shooting it down for freedom of speech is garbage," John Ebling, director of Lee County Veteran's Affairs said. "It's an insult to the military and just proves once again that none of those judges have been in the military or worn a military uniform."

While it's upsetting to veterans like Riccio and Ebling, the intention in some cases may not be malicious, said Udo Fischer, a Naples-based psychologist and a former cadet in the German army. Fischer said it's better to understand why someone lied.

"There's a certain personality type that would do that," he said. "Anybody that has more than average narcissistic personalities make their former accomplishments more significant than they actually were. They're trying to fill a void, a void deep inside where they're thinking that they aren't important or significant."

The Supreme Court ruled on the law in the case of a California man, Xavier Alvarez, who was convicted in 2007 for lying about winning the Medal of Honor, marrying a Mexican actress, and playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings. Alvarez was exonerated. However, a Naples man will remain in jail for lying about his military achievements.

In 2010, Raymond Gauthier was sentenced to three years in state prison for violating his probation by continuing to lie about being a war hero and abusing privileges awarded from that title. He had been in and out of court since 2007 for not only lying about being a decorated veteran, but for reaping the benefits from the community in the form of discounts and permissions.

After being ordered to destroy his fake uniforms, medals, and documents and work every military holiday for the next five years at the county jail, Gauthier couldn't stop. His final lie — being a decorated war hero with a Purple Heart — prompted a senior citizen to loan him thousands of dollars, which landed Gauthier in an orange jumpsuit in the Naples jail for being a gross common cheat.

Gauthier's attorney, Keith Szachacz, said Gauthier, 76, will not be able to appeal nor will his record be subject to expunction since he was charged by the state for violating state law, not federal law.

Fischer said during his time in the army he recalled many instances when men would exaggerate, or embellish achievements.

"Maybe it's more to do with the military," Fischer said. "It's a very manly thing, for the most part, such a huge status in the U.S., something special. If someone hasn't been very successful in other areas of life, they get a lot of respect to say, 'Hey, I served in the military, Marines, etc.' People really bow down for you.'"

In 2008, the Chicago Tribune compared obituaries and Who's Who to military records and discovered four out of five claims from 273 obituaries that claimed medals of honor were untrue. Of 333 Who's Who declarations, a third were found to be false. Fifteen of those claims related to the Medal of Honor. In 2009, the FBI reported to being "tipped off" to more than 200 fraudulent representations.

Some of those findings amounted to convictions under the Stolen Valor Act and can be appealed.

So Wong is gathering support to try to rewrite the Stolen Valor Act in a way that protects the integrity of military veterans and conforms to the Constitution.

Most recently a stuttering singer on America's Got Talent, Timothy Poe, was caught lying about being a war hero. Mark Seavy, a news media manager at the American Legion handles stolen valor cases and was determined to reveal the truth about Poe, and he did.

Now, he said, the mission is to refine the overturned Stolen Valor Act to specify fraud, which is one of the exemptions under the "Free Speech" clause in the First Amendment.

"The new stolen valor act would add that in order for the claim to be illegal that the person making the claim was doing so in order to get something of value," Seavy said. " So, if someone just said at a family reunion that he "won the Silver Star" it wouldn't be actionable, but if someone said 'I won the Silver Star and that is why you should hire me,' it would be."

The effort is being backed by almost all the veterans services organizations, Seavy said. The bill, HR 1755, is in the House of Representatives, and since they went to recess right after the Supreme Court decision, it hasn't moved out of committee yet. If local veterans wish to get involved, the best way is to urge their members of Congress to support and move on the bill, he said.

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